-Important complaining dept: Man, there's nothing worse than having your team lose in the waning seconds of the game, only to have the moment celebrated by loud Bears fans living beneath you. I hate this NFL season.
-This might sound obvious, but bear with me. I've been thinking about the current run of Captain America, specifically how the title character's death pretty much necessitates a bunch of covers featuring supporting characters and/or villains. Maybe Tom Brevoort's ongoing series on Marvel comics covers (here's the latest entry) has got me thinking about the changing nature of covers at Marvel/DC. For the last three or four issues, Captain America has not appeared on the cover (mostly because he's currently dead). As recently as the early 90s, I can't imagine this situation taking place at Marvel. In fact, here's an illustrative example.
There was a storyline in the late 80s in which Steve Rogers (the regular old Captain America) being replaced by the dude who used to be the Super Patriot, and then went on to become USAgent. Rogers started calling himself "The Captain," and wore the costume that USAgent wears now--which is basically a variation on the traditional Captain America uniform. It was close enough that any reader would recognize it as somehow related to what the title character usually wears, but different enough to make them wonder why he was wearing it. (You can see the first cover featuring the Captain here). Other issues featured the replacement Captain America wearing the traditional costume (example). Captain America continued to appear in the box in the upper left corner of the comic, even though the comic (from what I vaguely remember from flipping through it at the drug store) continued to focus on Steve Rogers. I can't say for certain why this course of action was taken, or whose idea it was, but it certainly kept irregular (or "casual") readers from being too confused: yes, this issue of Captain America does feature Captain America.
This storyline went on forever (just over a year), during which time the covers featuring the replacement Captain America gradually started to outnumber the ones featuring the Captain. Of the first five issues of this extended story (Captain America 337-341), the Captain appears on four covers, with the replacement Captain America limited to one cover appearance. Of the next five (342-346), only one cover clearly features the Captain, two feature Captain America, and another two either feature both or are ambiguous (and by "ambiguous," I mean this). In the final four issues, Captain America is on two covers, the Captain on one, and both on another (the final issue in the storyline, where they appear to be fighting each other).
I have no idea if Marvel was reacting to declining sales figures or what, but there's an unmistakable trend towards featuring the more familiar costume over the more familiar character (Steve Rogers). I didn't actually read these comics, so I'm not sure how well each cover reflected the larger "new Captain America" storyline. But, if you were only an occasional Captain America reader, the covers indicated that the status quo prevailed, and that the story between the covers was one featuring the same intellectual property who had always appeared.
Compare that to the more recent covers. Captain America is nowhere to be seen. There are no clear indicators of what is going on, other than the vague "Death of the Dream" title. Obviously, anyone considering the purchase of an issue of the (semi-) monthly Captain America comic either knows about the current story, or doesn't care. There are no casual purchases; Marvel depends upon a market of dedicated readers for their pamphlet-style comics. We all know this, but it's an interesting illustration of the massive change in the industry over the last 20 years.
-Which brings us to the zero sum hypothesis of Marvel/DC sales. Tim O'Neil mentioned it in a recent review column, leading Tom Spurgeon to questioned its accuracy. Spurgeon is particularly concerned with data indicating a growth in periodical sales, which in turn suggests a greater number of readers entering the market. The conventional wisdom here is that new readers, inasmuch as they exist, are drawn to events and their key tie-ins almost exclusively. Spurgeon posits that this might not be true, given the growth in the midlist titles (which he defines as those ranging from 50 to 100 on Diamond's top 300). I thought this sounded a little fishy, so I looked up the actual figures, going way back to 2002. I picked September because that was the most recent month for 2007 data. I looked only at numbers 50, 75, and 100 on the Diamond chart. A better study would consider all 51 books in this range, but I've got other things to do, unfortunately. My calculations below include the total change from the year before and the percentage change. These are the second and third numbers in parentheses, respectively:
50. Adventures of Superman #608, 33,871 (NA) (NA)
75. Robin #106, 25,996 (NA) (NA)
100. Harley Quinn #24, 19,661 (NA) (NA)
Total: 79,528 (NA) (NA)
50. Thor: Vikings #3, 35,066 (+1195) (+3.5%)
75. Arkham Asylum: Living Hell #5, 26,066 (+70) (+0.3%)
100. Robin #118, 21,811 (+2150) (+10.9%)
Total: 82,943 (+3415) (+4.3%)
50. JSA #65, 41,459 (+6393) (+18.2%)
75. Birds of Prey #73, 32,070 (+6004) (+23%)
100. Elektra: Hand #2, 25,638 (+3827) (+17.5)
Total: 99,167 (+16,224) (+19.6%)
50. JLA Classified #12, 43,174 (+1715) (+4.0%)
75. Defenders #3, 30,768 (-1302) (-4.1%)
100. Wraithborn #1, 22,118 (-3520) (-13.7%)
Total: 96,060 (-3107) (-3.1%)
50. X-Men First Class #1, 39,859 (-3315) (-7.7%)
75. Checkmate #6, 28,887 (-1881) (-6.1%)
100. Jack of Fables #3, 22,373 (+255) (+1.2%)
Total: 91,119 (-4941) (-5.1%)
50. Sub-Mariner #4, 40,130 (+270) (+0.7%)
75. Superman Confidential #6, 31,152 (+2265) (+7.8%)
100. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters #1, 23,731 (+1358) (+5.7%)
Total: 95,013 (+3894) (+4.3%)
And, by way of comparison, below are the aggregate totals for the top 10 selling books each month. I've included notes as to which books are special cases. "Event" books are major crossovers, like House of M. "Prestige" books feature creators whose work doesn't appear on a regular basis, thus making their appearances something of a special event. (Note that I included Astonishing X-Men #5, as Whedon's continued involvement in the series was questionable at the time. I did not include subsequent issues, once the series' ongoing nature was clearer.) I've also noted the first issue of high-profile miniseries, as well as the rare project attracting readers from outside the comics industry (such Dark Tower series or Joss Whedon's recent Buffy comics). I'm not sure whether or not this dynamic applies to Transformers comics, but I've listed them anyway. Again, I've included the total sales difference from the previous year and the percent change:
1 prestige (Spider-Man/Black Cat (Smith))
2 licensed (Transformers (2))
1,307,902 (+336,240) (+34.6%)
1 event comic (JLA/Avengers)
2 prestige comics (Batman (Lee), 1602 (Gaiman))
1 debut (Ultimate Six LS)
1,078,577 (-229,325) (-17.5%)
3 event comics (Avengers (2), Identity Crisis)
3 prestige (Superman/Batman (Turner), Superman (Lee), Astonishing X-Men (Whedon))
1,117,633 (+39,086) (+3.6%)
2 prestige (Ultimates (Hitch), All Star Batman (Miller/Lee))
3 event (House of M, JLA, OMAC Project)
1 debut (Ghost Rider LS)
1,326,019 (+208,386) (+18.6%)
7 event (Civil War, Amazing Spider-Man, Wolverine, 52 (4))
1 anniversary (Ultimate Spider-Man)
1,104,652 (-221,367) (-16.7%)
3 event comics (World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk, ASM)
2 minor event comics (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men)
1 outsider friendly (Buffy)
1 prestige (ASBAR (Lee/Miller))
There are two major spikes in sales for each category. Among the midlist positions, 2004 saw huge, double digit growth. Sales for positions 50-100 have fluctuated since then, but they haven't fallen back to their 2002-3 levels. For top 10 titles, the big growth year was 2003. In September of that year, the Loeb/Lee Hush storyline in Batman, Neil Gaiman's 1602, and the long-awaited JLA/Avengers crossover all had issues ship. I would propose that these two events were related. Throw in Grant Morrison's New X-Men and the continued success of Ultimate Spider-Man, and you could argue that superhero comics had a bigger buzz in 2003 than at any point in the prior decade. I tentatively suggest that these buzz books attracted new or lapsed readers. I would also suggest that these new readers stuck around. There were many fewer buzz books in 2004, so sales from these new readers filtered down to the midlist titles like JSA or Birds of Prey. Finally, in the years since 2003, I think we see an inverse relationship between top 10 sales and midlist sales. In 2005 and 2006, top 10 books sold more aggregate copies, while midlist titles sold fewer copies. In 2007, top 10 books declined in sales, while midlist titles increased in sales.
I'm not prepared to defend these conclusions to the death or anything, especially since I don't trust my math. But they do seem to suggest that the market has changed since 2003, and that there is some kind of inverse relationship between top sellers and mid-sellers. I'm not sure that it supports the zero sum theory, but I don't think it rules it out, either. Things get more complicated when you try to factor in TPB sales. Let's say that a sizable number of readers who were around c. 2004 have permanently switched to that format. If so, then one must surmise that continued sales increases indicate that there are many new readers coming into the market to replace them. It's also possible that new readers initially attracted to the collected editions are migrating to single issue periodicals, perhaps so that they can participate in online discussion of contemporary comics (that was the case for me, back in 2004).
One final thing: it's also worth considering all this in light of the sales analyses which appear on the Beat. And wouldn't you know it, the first one (for Marvel) has just gone up. I'll try to have more on this subject once I've read both reports.